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Opinion | The union election revealed which side Alabama’s politicians are on

In a healthy democracy, would workers striving to improve their lives be met only by politicians’ scorn?

Balloons at the UAW Local 112 headquarters spell out "Union yes!" CHANCE PHILLIPS/APR
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One of my favorite songs is the old union tune “Which Side Are You On?” It’s no jaunty party anthem, but I think Pete Seeger’s rendition is pretty good all the same.

The lyrics were written by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer, after her home was searched by men a coal mining company had hired to look for her husband.

One verse goes: They say in Harlan County / There are no neutrals there / Youll either be a union man / Or a thug for J.H. Blair.” Either you’re on the side of workers or you’re on the side of J.H. Blair, the corrupt Harlan County sheriff who did the bidding of the coal companies.

The Mercedes election last week was a great object lesson on which side all of Alabama’s politicians are on.

You see, it might have been difficult to tell who was on the workers’ side after all the dust cleared. It could have been difficult. If Alabama’s politicians and business folk hadn’t spent months telling anyone who would listen just how important low wages are to the Alabama model.

After all, we all know which side Gov. Ivey is on now. Shes not made it a secret.

Back in January, right when the unionization campaign kicked off at Mercedes, she announced that the Alabama model for economic success is under attack.” A “national labor union,” an “out-of-state special interest group,” was coming to ruin the Alabama economy, Ivey claimed.

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Or, after signing legislation to punish any companies who dare voluntarily recognize a labor union:We will not let this threat from Detroit deter our progress, deter our hope and deter our folks’ prosperity.

Ivey’s rhetoric, her framing of the United Auto Workers as a malevolent outsider stirring up trouble, was nothing new. Southern politicians have hated unions (not just the Union) for a very, very long time.

Back in 1908, coal miners in the Birmingham mining district went on strike. Black and white miners stood together, protesting low wages and unsafe conditions.

Then-Gov. BB Comer had some choice words for the striking Black miners: “I wish to remind them that prior to 1894, with very bad leadership, both scalawag and carpetbagger, they greatly injured themselves and the state, and I want to caution them against such leadership now. The state could not allow it then, and will not allow it now.”

You see, it was the out-of-state, radical leadership that led Black Alabamians astray, Comer said, both during Reconstruction and during the 1908 strike. It was such leadership that threatened, Comer might as well have said, the Alabama model for economic success.

As Jamelle Bouie and Harold Meyerson have detailed, the South has long been characterized by its oppressive labor regimes, from slavery to Jim Crow ‘right to work’ laws to prison labor in the words of AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler. The political leadership in the South is invariably tasked with shoring up and protecting these labor regimes.

In her book The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO, historian Barbara S. Griffith wrote that anti-union campaigns could be expected to receive routine support from city officials and from religious and educational leaders.”

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And what did we see a week ago? City councilor and reverend Matthew Wilson (city official and religious leader all in one) stepping in to tell Mercedes workers that they were just being too unrealistic.

Dont Mercedes workers know how good they have it, he asked. Sure, they might get paid less than their union counterparts. And maybe Mercedes doesnt respect its employees basic human dignity. But Mercedes workers should still be happy because they have the opportunity to sacrifice their health and time with their families to make a decent salary. Isn’t that better than the alternative?

The unionization campaign at the Mercedes factory wasn’t a partisan operation. It was folks inspired by what they’d seen their fellow auto workers win during the “Stand Up Strike” deciding to stand up themselves.

Last Thursday, the day before the election, Mercedes worker Brett Garrard explained that “this is not a political fight. We just seem to have a political enemy.”

Workers in Alabama decided that they wanted to try to get more leverage, to bargain for better pay and better hours, and conservative politicians and businessmen descended on them like the wrath of God.

In a healthy democracy, would workers striving to improve their lives be met only by politicians scorn? Would labor unions be thought of as so dangerous that businesses should be fined just for agreeing to bargain with them? Or are those the traits of a government which has never truly fulfilled the promises of 1776, 1865, and 1964?

As Shawn Fain said on Friday, “we have a crisis in this nation and the only way we fix that crisis is by standing up together and becoming united as a working class.”

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Which side are you on?

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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